Call it “Johnny Manziel and 10 Other Guys.” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wishes it were only that simple. Manziel is the one who earns the overwhelming share of headlines when it comes to the Aggies’ offensive attack — and rightly so, because he is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Last year in a 63-21 win over Auburn, he threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns while running for 90 yards and three scores.
It’s a testament to the staggering proficiency and versatility of Texas A&M’s offense that Johnson believes Manziel can be considered a luxury.
“They don’t have a soft spot,” Johnson said. “They’ve got great receivers. They got two NFL-looking tight ends that don’t even get on the field but about 10 to 12 snaps a game. Obviously, their quarterback is what makes them dynamic, but they’d be a really good football team even if he wasn’t on the field.”
But it didn’t stop there. Johnson praised the Aggies’ offensive line as well as their stable of running backs. Ben Malena is the leader in terms of yardage and experience, as the senior has gained 375 yards and scored eight touchdowns this year. He is complemented by sophomores Tra Carson (237 yards, four touchdowns) and Trey Williams (172 yards, three touchdowns).
Carrying the ball isn’t the only area in which the running backs excel, as Johnson noted they catch the ball and pass-protect well, too.
Together, it becomes an even riskier proposition to focus all of the defense’s attention on Manziel.
“They’ve got great players around him and that’s what makes it so hard,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of football teams putting up big numbers they do things differently than they do and it boils down to having really good players in a system that the coach knows and knows how to operate. It’s very difficult to slow them down.”
No team has been able to come up with an answer on how to slow down Mike Evans, either. The sophomore receiver leads the Southeastern Conference in yards per game (122.8) and has caught five touchdowns this season. No game showcased his skill better than Texas A&M’s showdown with Alabama on Sept. 15. Evans had his way with the Crimson Tide, hauling in seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and scoring two touchdowns along the way.
The 6-foot-5 receiver reminded Johnson of Alshon Jeffery, who played at South Carolina when the coach was the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator.
“You can be on perfect phase in coverage and you just can't — it's like a rebound in basketball,” Johnson said. “He's going to shield you out and get the ball. He's big, strong. He's very mobile. He's fast enough to get open. Even when you've got him coverage, he's got that tremendous size advantage — not only length but he's big.”
Auburn defensive back Chris Davis didn’t care about any of Evans’ attributes. Despite giving up six inches to his opponent, the 5-foot-11 Davis was willing to take on the responsibility of defending Evans one-on-one.
“Well, you know, because he's one of the top receivers in the SEC, and I think I'm one of the best defensive backs in the SEC,” the senior said. “I think it'll be a good matchup.”
One thing Johnson believes works in the Tigers’ favor this week is that they have faced similar offenses in their previous two outings, against Ole Miss and Western Carolina, respectively. While the players and talent levels may fluctuate, the more his unit sees certain offensive schemes, the better Auburn’s defense can react and counter it.
“They all have different plays they lean on and obviously Texas A&M has great physical talent,” Johnson said, “but the formation recognition — especially when they start speeding it up, because they're a fast-paced team, too — that's just going to help us to have been looking at those formations and being aligned in the same things.”
The ability to recognize those tendencies is what got him hired in the first place. Gus Malzahn has the utmost faith in Johnson to take care of the defense. That doesn’t mean Malzahn ignores it, however, saying he’s “on top of things” and will offer suggestions from time-to-time.
On Saturdays, though, it’s all in Johnson’s hands.
This weekend just happens to be one of the toughest he’ll have all season.
“They're good at what they're doing, and they've got a lot of trust,” Malzahn said of his defensive staff. “You can tell the defense is getting better each week. We're going to have to be even better this week against this bunch.”